Nobody knows when cheese was invented, but it could have been one of the great ideas of the Neolithic revolution, nine thousand years ago.
The inventor was surely a traveller who thought of carrying milk in a bag made from an animal’s stomach, found that it had curdled, and decided to taste the result. This unknown benefactor of the human race (at least, of humans who can digest lactose) had discovered the only practical pre-refrigeration method of storing milk. Dairy farming could now provide food all year round, and not just for people who lived on the farm. Animals could be fully used for their milk as well as their meat, and one more foodstuff could be delivered to the towns where humans were just beginning to live.
One more foodstuff? That isn’t the full story. Cheese is not one food but an infinite range of flavors and textures, a whole world of gastronomy. Any neolithic townie might appreciate the difference between new and mature cheese, cheese from the eastern lowlands and the western hills, cheese from sheep and goats and cows. Among the earliest pyramid burials, around 3,000 BC, archaeologists identified a fortunate ruler of both halves of Egypt who was dispatched to the next world with labelled supplies of ‘northern cheese’ and ‘southern cheese’.
Ancient Greeks imported cheese from Sicily. Classical Romans sampled it from all round the Mediterranean, though some still preferred the smoked cheese that reached perfection in Rome’s crowded Velabrum district. Charlemagne, who ruled France and Germany in AD 800, is the first recorded fashion-setter to appreciate blue cheese (was it Roquefort? No one knows). Rock-like Parmesan and runny Brie were already Europe’s favourites in the 15th century. Cheese-making was among the most essential skills of the early colonists of the New World. Globalization? Cheese was far ahead of the game.